Social Security's Long Memory May Work to Your Disadvantage

As people with HIV "return to work" in greater numbers, we are hearing more reports of trouble with Social Security overpayments.

Often, the two go together. And often there is nothing you can do about it -- except prepare yourself.

Overpayments Happen

Work-related overpayments frequently occur when a person receiving benefits starts earning income, and conveniently forgets to notify Social Security. Or, they notify Social Security and never hear back.

Months or years down the line, Social Security mails them a letter that says, in essence, "Hey! You have been working. You owe us $10,000 in Social Security contributions and we want it paid back now."

Unfortunately, people on Social Security all too often do not have the records that they need to fight back, such as accurate pay records, check stubs and W-2 forms.

Report Income

Let's start at the beginning. If you collect Social Security disability benefits -- either Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) -- you are supposed to notify Social Security immediately if you start earning income.

Social Security periodically scans beneficiary Social Security numbers with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or the State Tax Franchise Board. If you earn income, and do not report it, sooner or later, Social Security will catch it.

To report income, you should call your local Social Security office (not the national 800 number) and report to the SSI or SSDI division. Contact both SSI and SSDI if you collect money from both divisions.

After you report, Social Security will send a Work Activity Report if you collect SSDI or they will ask for monthly wage reports if you are on SSI. In either case, get a written statement from your local office indicating that you called and reported work income. Go to the office in person, if necessary.

If you get a Work Activity Report in the mail, photocopy the dated postmark on the envelope and the completed report itself. If, down the line, the agency says they have no record that you called or mailed in your Work Activity Report, you'll need to be able to document that you did.

Then, start photocopying your monthly checks or check stubs from your employer. If you are on SSI, you should turn in these monthly records to Social Security. Based on these reports, the agency will make deductions from your benefit check.

If you are self-employed or earning varying amounts each month, Social Security may also average out your income over a year. Then they adjust for overpayments or underpayments at the start of the next calendar year.

If you are on SSDI, Social Security will track your wages for nine months. After that, if you earn or continue to earn more than $700 a month, they can suspend the dollar portion of your benefits whenever your monthly wages go above $700. They can also restore benefits when wages drop below that amount.

Defenses and Waivers

The worst overpayments occur when you do not report to Social Security. In these cases, Social Security catches up with your work activity, retroactively looks at what you have earned and calculates what you owe.

You will not be sent to jail for not reporting income to Social Security. Instead, they will calculate an overpayment, and ask you to come in with whatever proof of earnings you have.

Your best defense is well-kept documentation. If you notified Social Security that you returned to work and they failed to change your status, you can only prove it with copies of postmarked letters and envelopes and copies of the forms that you sent to them.

If they come up with a list of months in which you did or did not earn more than $700 or, for SSI, monthly reports of your income, you will need accurate check stubs, W-2 forms or another type of documentation to argue your case if you disagree.

Social Security can often waive part or all of work-related overpayments. They are more likely to waive substantial amounts if you can prove that they made a mistake or failed to respond.

But you must have something to show them. Otherwise, it is your word against theirs, and you can guess who they are likely to believe.


If you are called in to negotiate an overpayment (and you are in the Los Angeles area), you should also call AIDS Project Los Angeles' Work Services or Benefits programs. In some cases, an advocate can accompany you to the local office to discuss your case.

If all else fails, you can appeal any decision Social Security makes about your benefits. These appeals take time -- lots of time -- but ultimately a judge will decide who is right and who is wrong. Once again, you will need records to document your side of the story.

Often, Social Security recipients keep getting checks long after they know the checks should have stopped. In this case you have two choices: you can set aside the checks for the day when Social Security nails you with an overpayment. Or you can spend the money, and then claim you cannot pay them back.

Social Security would tell you to set the money aside. But the choice probably depends on how much you like to gamble.

If you are negotiating an overpayment with Social Security or working or thinking of returning to work, call APLA's Work Services Program at (323) 993-1659 or (323) 993-1616 for more information.

Phil Curtis coordinates AIDS Project Los Angeles' Work Services program. He can be reached by calling (323) 993-1659 or by e-mail at

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).